A writer’s writer often ignored is James Baldwin, who examines his drive to write in the context of race:
If you felt that it was a white man’s world, what made you think that there was any point in writing? And why is writing a white man’s world?
Because they own the business. Well, in retrospect, what it came down to was that I would not allow myself to be defined by other people, white or black. It was beneath me to blame anybody for what happened to me. What happened to me was my responsibility. I didn’t want any pity. “Leave me alone, I’ll figure it out.” I was very wounded and I was very dangerous because you become what you hate. It’s what happened to my father and I didn’t want it to happen to me. His hatred was suppressed and turned against himself. He couldn’t let it out—he could only let it out in the house with rage, and I found it happening to myself as well. And after my best friend jumped off the bridge, I knew that I was next. So—Paris. With forty dollars and a one-way ticket. (The Paris Review interview)
Prompted by the announcement from the College Board that the SAT would be revamped in 2016, including dropping the writing section added in 2005, The New York Times has included a Room for Debate on Can Writing Be Assessed?
So, unlike the moment when the SAT added writing (one that heralded only doom for the field of composition), I want to take this moment to examine writing and the teaching of writing because dropping writing from the SAT may prove to be a positive watershed moment for both.
First, let me offer a few points of context.
I am 53 and have been teaching for 31 years, most of that life and career dedicated to writing and teaching writing. I read and write every day—much of that reading and writing is serious in that it is connected to my professional work. But I also read and write extensively for pleasure, including my life as a poet.
Two facts about my writing life: (1) I write because I must, not because I choose to, and (2) I am always learning to write because writing is a journey, not something one can acquire fully or finish.
As well, I strongly embrace the foundational belief that writing is an essential aspect of human liberty, autonomy, agency, and dignity; this is part of the grounding of my work as a critical educator. Living and learning must necessarily include reading, re-reading, writing, and re-writing the world (see Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and Maxine Greene, just to mention a few).
Writing is also integral to academics, in terms of learning and scholarship. Writing is part of the learning process, but it is also a primary vehicle for scholarly expression.
Next, considering the importance of writing in human agency and education, any effort to standardized the assessment of writing or to use writing assessments as gatekeepers for any child’s access to further education are essentially corrupt and corrupting.
Adding writing to the SAT in 2005, then, was one of several powerful contexts that have seriously crippled the teaching of writing in formal education; those forces include also:
- A historical and lingering conflating of “teaching grammar” (teaching correctness) with teaching writing.
- The entire accountability era begun in the early 1980s (see Applebee and Langer and Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction?).
All three of the above fail the fundamental value in writing because they distract from the process and act of writing as well as misread writing a a fixed skill that can be attained at some designated point along the formal education continuum.
As the Faculty Director of First Year Seminars at my university, I focus primarily on how we address the teaching of writing in those seminars (and throughout the curriculum). That role has highlighted for me a lesson I also learned while teaching high school English for 18 years: Many teachers, including English teachers, do not see themselves as writing teachers and often expect that students should come to their courses already proficient writers.
Essentially, then, using a writing assessment of some sort to identify students as college-ready as writers perpetuates the idea that we can and should have students demonstrating some fixed writing outcomes before we allow them access to higher education; this presumes in some ways that college will not be a place where people can and should learn to write.
In much the same way that the accountability paradigm is misguided in fixating on outcomes over conditions, seeing writing as a measurable skill useful for gatekeeping college entrance shifts our focus away from what experiences students need so that their continual learning to write in college can be better supported.
Yes, student outcomes matter, and samples of student writing in the right contexts may provide some powerful evidence of what students know as writers and what students need as writers. But something in the addition of writing to the 2005 SAT must not be forgotten: One-draft, timed, and prompted writing scored by rubrics, and even by computers, works against the important goals of writing .
Just as grading should be shunned for feedback when teaching writing (see my chapter here), the question is not if writing can be assessed, but how do we insure that all students have access to the common experiences necessary at all point along the formal education experience?
What, then, are those common experiences—and once we implement those, how do we document those experiences in order to support both students having equitable access to higher education and to the continual learning to write that must be central throughout higher education?
Some thoughts on common experiences:
- Rich and multi-genre/media reading experiences that include choice and assigned reading. Students need to develop genre awareness and discipline-specific awareness as readers.
- Rich and multi-genre/media writing experiences that include the following: choice and assigned writing, peer and teacher feedback and conferences, workshop experiences drafting short and extended multi-draft compositions, and discipline-specific writing experiences.
- Analysis of and experiences with a wide range of citation and documentation style sheets for integrating primary and secondary sources in original writing.
- Continual consideration of expectations for writing both in academic/school settings and real world settings—challenging school-based norms such as thesis sentences and template essay formats.
While this isn’t meant to be exhaustive, the point is that instead of seeking ways in which we can assess well test-based writing or continuing to explore tests and metrics that correlate strongly with actual writing proficiencies, we must commit ourselves to all students having the sorts of common experiences with writing necessary to grow as writers—both for their own agency and their academic pursuits.
Finally, if we can commit to these conditions of learning instead of outcomes, we should then find ways to gather artifacts of these common experiences to use instead of metrics as we guide students through—and not gatekeep them from—formal education.
Did what you wanted to write about come easily to you from the start?
I had to be released from a terrible shyness—an illusion that I could hide anything from anybody. (The Paris Review interview)
NOTE: For a historical perspective on teaching writing see selected works by Lou LaBrant.